Chickencaesarsalad
Does anyone know who first put cooked chicken breast on a Caesar salad and called it a Chicken Caesar?  I wish I did.  I’ve been upset about this at least for two years now because I remember railing to Todd English and Ming Tsai about it as we traveled together for an erstwhile cooking show.  “The Chicken Caesar is an emblem of the mediocrity of American cuisine!” I would cry.  Ming would chuckle and turn up the volume on his iPod, and Todd more or less ignored me as a run-of-the-mill crank screaming into the nor’easter of American food culture. Or so I thought.
    Last week I had lunch at a Cheesecake Factory in Cleveland, and of course, there it was, Caesar Salad, two prices, one plain, the other with chicken.  You can run but you can’t hide.  Worse, this week I had lunch at what positions itself as one of the most upscale restaurants in the city, Table 45, and here, at a restaurant offering cutting edge cuisine and has built a glassed in chef’s table looking into a swank kitchen, it was in the most egregious form.  The Chicken Caesar “Bangkok Style.”
    I never wanted actually to write about it, though, until I read a line from Barbara Kingsolver’s recent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family’s efforts to eat locally for a year.  “No matter what else we do or believe, food remains at the center of every culture.  Ours now runs on empty calories.”
    The first part of that statement resounds with truth and hope—those of us who love food understand it as a fundamental part of our humanity: that the gathering, preparing and sharing of our daily nourishment is the core of our days and who we are.  It is at the very center of our culture.  And our legacy, the content of that culture, judging from the sheer volume of portions served, is surely the Chicken Caesar, bottled dressing, thickened with Xantham gum.
    Why is it so annoying to me?  It’s not that meat on a salad is bad.  I love meat with salads—tuna, chicken, and beef have rich salad histories throughout the world.
    Every single laminated menu serving any kind of American or American hybrid food seems to include the Chicken Caesar (if it’s Mexican, it will be a Chicken Caesar Taco).  Why?  Two reasons, neither of them hopeful.
The Chicken Caesar is the default meal for America eating out.  Don’t know what to have, have the Chicken Caesar.  Everything else looks like crap?  Have the Chicken Caesar.  Hard to screw it up.  The Chicken Caesar exists because everything else about American cuisine at the major chain restaurants is of relentlessly dubious quality.  Greens are greens, and chicken breast doesn’t taste like anything anyway, and I’ll lay odds that the dressing you get at Ruby Tuesdays, TGIF’s, Cheesecake Factory, Appleby’s—fill in the blank—comes out of the same jug.  But the point is, we don’t care really what it tastes like, only that it tastes like the last one we had, that it’s consistent. McDonald’s learned the effectiveness of that strategy early on.
    I cringe when I see the Chicken Caesar because it represents an embrace of the misinformed and unimaginative American diner, who for better or worse continues to shape our menus.  I’ll have a salad, the reasoning goes, because it’s healthy (let’s disregard what it’s slathered with), and I’m hungry so let’s pile on some chicken breast, the skim milk of the protein world.  I’m not saying it’s not healthy, that I don’t like salad or that I think it would only be laudable were it a deep-fried pork belly Caesar (though I’d definitely give it a go if I ever saw that on a Cheesecake Factory—we could batter it and call it the Chicken Fried Pork Belly Caesar!).
    All I’m asking is for the corporate bodies that determine the menus of our mass market sit-down restaurants to consider a few more options beyond the mediocre Chicken Caesar.  Put a little imagination into it!
    It’s an uphill battle, I know, and surely the corporate bodies know better than I do about the ordering patterns of the public they serve and the bottom line that feeds their salaries, but I didn’t quite know what I was up against until I traveled with Ming and Todd, two well-known, well-regarded chefs, railing against the goddam Chicken Caesar on the plane.  We were just embarking on a four-city shoot, heading to Vegas, which in many ways is a triumph in terms of offering an enormous swath of America all but unlimited high-end, imaginative food, the likes of which is only available in New York in such concentration.
Mming_todd
    English has one of those restaurants, his flagship Olives, at the Bellagio at which I’ve had some terrific meals.  On our final night in Vegas, he hosted a dinner for all the folks putting the show together.  He ordered for the table and began the meal with a few signature pizzas.  With glee, with guffawing laughter, he watched a server place one of those pies directly in front of me.  Olive’s Chicken Caesar pizza.  I’ll bet he can’t take it off the menu.
    Nor should he.  The pizza was delicious.

[Notes: 1) I wrote this for my August column for Restaurant Hospitality magazine.  2) I've become so inspired by the notion of a Chicken Fried Pork Belly Confit Caesar, that I am determined to make one tonight, and will post pix and the recipe tomorrow!  3) Pic at right is during Cooking Under Fire shooting, ages ago, with Ming and, far right, Todd--my daughter likes this shot because I am getting makeup, which she finds hilarious (as do I, actually).]

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135 Wonderful responses to “The Shame of the Chicken Caesar”

  • Nicholas Robinson

    Umm, won the lottery lately? According to the Centers for Disease Control, salmonella from eggs occurs roughly one in 10,000 times.

    Pretty good odds. Whip me an aïoli, baby! Toot sweet!

  • ruhlman

    i didn’t want to get into what a real caesar salad is any more than what a real martini is–but i agree, the best i had was prepared tableside, in 1996. haven’t seen that since and am glad to know some places still do it.

  • Brogie62

    The Williamsburg Inn in Virginia stills does the traditional table-side preparation. It was the best Caesar Salad I ever had.

  • frances

    Put me on the bandwagon with Fiat Lux and eileen from OH: I can’t get to the atrocity that is the Chicken Caesar Salad without being miffed and vexed about the traditional Caesar Salad. Since Big Brother cracked down on uncooked eggs, I’ve been searching for a decent made-from-scratch-at-your-table Caesar with no success. We’ve all but given up, making the salad at home if we want a good one.

    And on a different point: What legacy are we leaving our children? If our kids don’t have the opportunity to travel, and all they’re exposed to is a mile-long strip of fast-food and chain restaurants, what happens to their little palates? Do they grow up aspiring to duplicate Friday’s fajitas in the kitchen? Gah.

  • S. Woody

    What is mediocre about Caesar salads these days is not that they contain chicken, but that they are not freshly prepared at tableside, the ingredients added to the salad bowl in an established order so as to blend the flavors together. The notion that Cheesecake Factory might include a dish that is not factory made… well, there’s the contradiction. One cannot mass produce a true Caesar salad.

    Therefor, a Chicken Caesar salad is in the realm of the possible. Chicken breasts, gently poached and sliced thin, nay, better shredded, and added towards the end of the salad’s preparation (the better to keep the flavor of the chicken from soaking up too much of the dressing) – this could be a very tasty course of a dinner, or perhaps a very good lunch.

    But it would have to be prepared tableside!

  • Skawt

    I’ve eaten my share of chicken caesar salads. One place near work does a burrito wrap of it.

    It’s not the greatest, but it’s filling. I dare say that it would be a lot tastier if I made my own caesar dressing (but I’ll be damned if I ever emulsify the egg yolks and oil by hand whisk again), marinated and grilled the chicken with my own recipe and grill, picked the romaine lettuce out myself, and grated some imported parmagiano reggiano instead of that nasty crap from the green can.

    I suspect that Ruhlman’s complaint is that the dish is universally mediocre. The two items that are really necessary for a good caesar salad are the dressing and the grated cheese, and it’s a safe bet that no low-end restaurant will ever use fresh ingredients.

    I’ve been trying to increase and improve my own home repertoire lately. For instance, one regular chicken cassrole I used to make just wasn’t good at all when re-heated. So I found a classic recipe for a chicken casserole where the sauce was pretty much a chicken supreme sauce, but with extra milk/cream. Turned out fairly well, with a couple of tweaks in mind for the next batch (white pepper instead of black, more grated parmagiano).

    The next addition to the rotation will be an attempt at a decent Penne alla Vodka (with bacon, just for you, ruhlman). Many of the recipes recommend San Marzano tomatoes, and we have plenty of 28-oz cans in the cupboard.

  • Emily

    Frick. Now I want a chicken caesar salad. Parm shreds, chunky croutons, peppery chicken… nom.

  • Kate

    LOL, the best part of your makeup picture isn’t that you are getting your nose powdered, it’s the happy look you have while leaning into the brush. Awesome.

    This was hilarious and it’s so true. I’ve even fallen prey to the temptation to order the CCS under conditions of extreme menu-dubiousness. Sometimes a boring safe bet seems, well, safest. But I have to say I always regret it–the dressing is too gloppy and the chicken too dry. The Asian Chicken Cliché Salad is usually a better bet, if only for the lighter dressing. And those crispy noodles.

    I just finished The Reach of a Chef the other day–as always, a great read. Thanks!

  • eileen from OH

    I’m with Fiat Lux…why rant against a Chicken Caesar when you’re most likely not getting a real Caesar to begin with? I mean, it’s not like they’ve totally screwed up an amazing Caesar by adding chicken. Only place I get an amazing Caesar is when I make it myself. That’s not bragging – it’s just that they’re easy to make. And I can’t remember the last time I had a real Caesar in a restaurant.

    Real Caesars were all over the place until the Food Police (and accompanying Food Trend-Setters) decided it was Very, Very Dangerous And You Could Die From The Not Totally Cooked Egg And Are You Nuts Or What? So what now passes for a Caesar is a pale, sad imitation of the real thing, with a dressing that most likely includes imitation anchovy paste, grated “cheese food”, and Egg Beaters.

    I’ve seen Chicken Caesars and Steak Caesars and Shrimp Caesars and Salmon Caesars and it bothers me not a whit. No doubt somewhere, somebody is working on a Breakfast Caesar Burrito Wrap with Canadian Bacon Bits and Refried Eggs.

    So I don’t get my panties in a twist over Chicken Caesars. They’re just salads with chicken in A Dressing That Ain’t Caesar But Might Be Okay.

    One surefire rule, though – never, ever, ever, order a CEASAR Salad.

    No matter what is heaped atop.

    eileen from OH

  • Emily

    Wolfgang Puck’s caesar IS pretty stellar, I have to admit. Corner Bakery’s chicken c. is good too – spicy croutons!
    Quoth Ruhlman re chicken breast: “the skim milk of the protein world.” Dare I mention that skim milk is, itself, a protein?

    Using David’s post as a launching pad I would like to opine that cultural snobbery in any form – be it an anti-caesar stance, anti-Rocco, anti-Survivor, anti-NSYNC – doesn’t do anyone any good. You just get yourself all worked over something you can’t change, possibly make others feel bad about things they truly enjoy, and make yourself sound like an intolerant snot. No one wins. Just avoid it if it offends.

    It’s funny that anyone manages to be offended by anything at Cheesecake Factory – except perhaps the gargantuan portions.

    In closing, I love Ming Tsai. I wish I could work for him – he seems like such a level-headed and calming spirit. On his PBS show recently he reminded us to wash our hands after handling raw chicken and said, “Don’t be paranoid guys, just be smart.” ahhh…

  • intuitive eggplant

    Just have to chime in about “Cooking Under Fire.” My favorite cooking competition show ever. Sensible, inspiring, informative, accessible, and not hokey. Loved the challenges, especially the terrine challenge (which compelled me to buy Charcuterie in addition to your other books, which I love). I will stop fawning now, but would love it if some network took the opportunity to bring us a second season. I think a lot of hard-core and nascent foodies would heartily welcome a show of that ilk and be happy to see it expanded into a full-hour format. Do you think the time has passed for such a straight-up show sans yelling, incessant product placement, and contrived drama?

  • Sorcha

    Applebees has good nachos and since, as Tony has taught us, nachos are actually not authentic Mexican anyway, I feel no shame in eating them. ;)

  • Tags

    No doubt General Caesar and Colonel Sanders are locked in a deadly embrace, rolling over in their gravy. Best of three falls. Paula Deen gets the winner, since she pinned General Tso’s ass.

    All this for the right to shill for Cheesecake Factory’s Chicken Caesar Cheesecake, which comes in sweet or savory, whichever comes first.

    As for Chicken Fried Pork Belly Confit Caesar, have you tried looking it up on smithfield.com? Paula Deen says it’s got somethin for everyone, y’all.

  • Nina

    At one low point in my past working life, my company-provided lunch of packaged Wolfgang Puck Chicken Caesar Salad was the highlight of my day. I got to craving it every morning, and reading your post actually made me crave it once again. I just can’t renounce it. The chicken ties together the caesar salad for me. It provides tenderness and savory balance in a salad that is otherwise almost completely abrasive by design, either by texture, salt, and/or acid. One forkful of chicken surrounded by a leaf of lettuce covered in dressing, rolled in cheese, and topped by a crouton would still make my knees weak, even though I know better food now.

    Yes, bad ingredients will yield a bad salad and this salad can emblematic of mediocrity, but done nicely, it works straightforwardly for me as any other classic does.

    I just know not to go to, say, Applebee’s to eat it, or to go to Applebee’s, period.

  • Kansas City rube

    P.S. It also makes people fat as hell. Was pizza not already fattening enough that people have to dunk it in ranch dressing now?

  • Sorcha

    Jaxie, that reminds me of when my husband and I were engaged – he made me a cheesecake of the made-from-scratch-but-not-baked sort, and it just would not set up. We dumped the cherries on anyway, called it “astronaut cheesecake”, and ate it just the same. It was delicious.

  • Kansas City rube

    All I can say about the chicken caesar salad is that at least it doesn’t have goddamned ranch dressing on it. For years I’ve watched with horror as it has become as ubiquitous a condiment as ketchup.

    Ranch dressing is the opiate of the palates of the masses.

  • Sorcha

    Why is it elitist to object to mediocrity? Why does it somehow equate to a personal attack on people who don’t? I don’t get that. I mean, fuck, I’m a middle-class mom of hillbilly descent, currently unemployed. The paint on my house is peeling, my car is almost twenty years old, and I like Family Guy and crappy action movies. I’m about as far from elitist as you can get without being reactionary, and yeah, my family eats at places like Applebee’s sometimes. Even still, I get what Michael’s saying. You don’t have to be rich or even a foodie to recognize poorly-created food – the best restaurant in my neighborhood is a soul food joint up the street in a building that used to be a titty bar. Why all the righteous anger, David? He was complaining about the salad, not you. Honestly, what’s got your knickers in a twist, there?

  • Fiat Lux

    Ruhlman is spot-on here. Chicken Caesar salad is practically Newspeak, it’s so much the opposite of what it purports to be. It’s a big pile of fat, oil, and cheese masquerading as a healthful salad due to the presence of lettuce and chicken.

  • Brogie62

    Of course 99% of all restaurants don’t even serve a real Caesar Salad. Anchovies are very rarely used and just forget about the egg.

  • JaxieWaxieWoo

    Wait – they serve something other than cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory? Either I’ve been getting some seriously defective menus or it’s time to schedule that long-overdue visit the eye doctor. I’ve only ever noticed the cheesecake selection….

    Sad but true, I’ve never met a cheesecake that didn’t hit the happy spot. Even my first pathetic homemade attempt — which came out with an odd Jello-meets-custard kinda consistency — was eventually sucked down with a straw when there was no way that sucker was gonna get, much less stay, plated.

    (As an aside, how the heck are you supposed to check to see if it’s done baking by shaking the pan slightly to “see if the inner core wobbles slightly” when you can’t open the over door for 40 minutes?! Sheesh…and yet you amazing chefs wonder why we throw our hands up and give in to the siren call of mediocrity….)

  • Frances

    I wonder how every chain “sit-down” restaurant I’ve been to makes its chicken taste like a hot dog. And not a very good hot dog either. Having chicken taste like a bad hot dog does not appeal to me regardless of how consistantly that is achieved.

    Chicken Ceasar Salad sounds like a nice concept. Nicer than Bad Hot Dog Ceasar Salad. When in doubt, I order the burger. For some reason they can’t make a burger taste like a hot dog.

  • Kevin Kossowan

    I couldn’t help but take offense to the sweeping statement that all us foodies get so damn elitist. If foodie-snobism offends, perhaps choose another blog to read? And in Ruhlman’s defense [not that he needs me to help out here] – dude is in love with bacon. The masses love bacon. He clearly does not have a hate on for everything other people like. I’m really impressed to see someone so passionate about chicken caesar though – to come to its defense with such vigor. Props.

  • Victor

    The Chicken Caesar Salad.

    Reminds me of a figure of speech I heard when I was in Memphis: “It’s like puttin’ socks on a donkey.” The donkey being the salad absolutely dredged in the seasoned coronary-juice that canned caesar salad is. Dress it up however you like there’s nothing but a trip to the gym or a heart attack up the road. Choose wisely.

    While Ruhlman asks “why” I submit that “why the hell not” might be more appropriate. It’s safe to say that the body has taken over and is just ingesting fat calories as if on some self-preservation failsafe at this point. Might as well be a stick of butter. Couldn’t this qualify as some “bad” kind of comfort food?

    Barbara K’s book is cool because it really explains what “locavorism” really involves, and it’s a lot harder to eat locally than one might think. It’s not preachy either. While I still dream of traveling to Morimoto to sample of his cryogenically preserved toro that’s only attainable from the remote depths of the Indian Ocean on a few days each year, I came away with a greater insight on the imported/transported foods I eat and what to be aware of.

    It’s funny that Ruhlman mentions Todd English a few weeks after getting The Next Iron Chef gig. Is it taboo to talk about English’s stint on the WB/UPN Iron Chef series with Chairman Shatner? Does anyone remmeber the other chefs?

  • French Laundry at Home

    I think most restaurants’ caesar salads are crap even without the chicken. However, let’s dredge up an old debate with this new rant: Would it be better if they made the Chicken Caesar with dark meat instead of white meat?

  • David McAdory

    Quit your whining. If people like it it must be terrible, seems to be your motto. You hate vodka martinis, symbolic of the mediocrity of American cuisine, you hate chicken Caesar salad, too mediocre of an American dish. Give me a fucking break. If people like it and more importantly if it tastes good what is the damn hard, cut the damn crap of putting down the American consumer’s taste. If you don’t like it fine, if someone else does why look down or speak down on their selection. This is why I hate some foodies, you all get so damn elitist.

  • Shoebootie

    There is no such thing as a Chicken Caesar pizza. What you had at Olive’s was a large, open faced Chicken Caesar wrap.

  • jaye joseph

    Amen.

    However, have you ever had a Caesar Burger? Because I’m going to have to give the thumbs up to that little taste of mediocrity.

  • Doodad

    I really miss “Cooking Under Fire” and did not realize who you were while watching it. That was the best of the reality cooking shows. So, of course, it had to die. Was there ever any thought to a second season or was it just too $$ for PBS?

    And I have to say, you are right about the Chicken Caesar. It is the *not quite* fast food equivalent of the Double Cheeseburger and a diet soda. “Because I am watching my weight and want some *points* left for desert.” Chortle.

  • Natalie Sztern

    me, too, whatever happened to cooking under fire….i also loved it…in fact that is how i first heard of u….

  • ruhlman

    I think PBS did a bad job marketing and airing it–summertime on either side of a two-week pledge drive. not exactly the way to develop momentum. And i think half hour reality shows are really difficult.

    whatever the case, all I know is they simply chose not to do a second season. which was too bad because it was a lot of fun to do.